How To Write Commercial Songs – Without Selling Your Soul

commercial songs - songtown


Often songwriters in our SongTown classes ask, “How do I write commercial songs without selling out?”

They are writers who would like to have commercial success and hear one of their songs on the radio or an album. But they want to know how to accomplish this and still be true to themselves. They don’t want to sell-out.

The definition of commercial music generally means music that is heard by millions and/or purchased by millions. That number could be hundreds, depending on your level of commercial success 😉 Over my years as a professional songwriter, I’ve lived a rollercoaster ride of commercial success, some years with three songs playing on the radio at once, and some years with no songs playing. So, here is my take on commercial songs.

First: Decide what type of songwriter you are.

If you listen to radio consistently, you’ll hear cutting edge songs. But, you’ll also hear throwback classic songs. Songs that sound as if they could’ve been written 10-20 years ago. I have a friend who writes classic songs, typically a ballad to mid-tempo songs. Every three to four years, he has a big hit on the radio. He’s extremely good at writing these types of songs. He has to be because there aren’t as many of these being cut as contemporary songs. He’s decided to stick to what he does well and do it the best he can. That being said, he doesn’t sit around listening to music written 20 years ago. Rather, he is constantly listening to new commercial songs, the latest new band, the latest singer-songwriter, and the latest pop diva. He soaks it all in so that his music, even though classic in form and style, has modern influences. His songs still sound fresh.

Another type of commercial writer writes contemporary music.

Most of us start out this way. We are teenagers listening to the hottest, latest music with our friends. We pick up a guitar and learn our favorite tunes, then we start writing that style. A lot of my pro co-writers write this style of music. More slots are available on albums for the latest, most exciting music. If you decide this is who you are as a writer, then this also requires that you listen to a lot of new music coming out every year. You want to be aware of current styles and try to put your own spin on it.

Second: Your music has to resonate with a lot of listeners.

I don’t mean you have to pander to the latest demographic buying records, but rather, resonate with them. What creates this resonance? My top rule in writing: Be real. Be believable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something I love: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. Song Building is a great book for learning to be clear with your song’s message. That really is key to your songs resonating with your audience.

If you dig deep enough to the core of any emotion, sadness, or joy, and write it well, then most people will feel that same emotion.

So, these are my top two keys to creating great commercial songs. I’ve managed a long songwriting career with steady success by keeping these things in mind, by growing daily as a writer, and by always writing with integrity. My heart doesn’t view commercial music as selling out. I don’t feel commercial music as a choice that we must make to write a great song vs. a hit song.

Each day I show up with an open heart and mind, learning from music all around me and trying to write the best song I can. I know that if I do this daily, then on some of these days, I create magic that resonates with millions of people.  

Check out the video below for a deeper dive into The Heart Of Your Songs.

Write On! Live On! Clay


Clay Mills is co-founder of SongTown and a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter. He has 2 Grammy nominations and is the co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing. 

Finding The Heart Of Your Song

35 thoughts on “How To Write Commercial Songs – Without Selling Your Soul

  1. So true Clay, I think it’s important to note that music consumers are used to consuming music packaged in a certain way. I know some writers that refuse to format their songs in
    one of the popular commercial song packages ie:
    VLCVLCBC structure. They call it forumla writing = Selling Out…but I would argue that if my song is presented in a way that consumers like, how could this be a bad thing?

  2. Hey Clay,
    Your post is clear and hefty and important advice from a person who obviously knows. I believe everything you have written here is accurate and necessary.

    Your Emerson quote hangs on the starboard wall of my studio. On the port side is Frost’s equally-momentous wisdom: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Write on my friend. JB

  3. It’s 6:25am here Clay – great blog about that sometimes seemingly elusive “voice of a song” and perfect one for this morning because I’m getting ready for a co-write. Saving the link for this one into favorites.


  4. I love this!!! Embracing what kind of songwriter you are and being true to that, I also love learning to trust your gut feeling about the song, I think what resonates with us usually will resonate with the listener. I just wrote a song that was very simple and understandable, and although it may be a song that simply “spells it out”, it is real and heartfelt.
    I really value and appreciate this advice. Thank you!

  5. Love this Clay. Recently I’ve typed through 39 pages of lyric starts waiting for my hook to whisper what it really wants to stay. So far, the only whisper I’ve heard is “Patience, grasshopper“. 🙃

  6. I have around **80song lyrics mostly r an b A FEW BALLADS ONE CHRISTMAS SONG AND A FEW COUNTRY AND WESTERN S

  7. A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.
    Bob Dylan

  8. I love writing.

    Digging to find words that connect with my heart. Pushing past the obvious phrase that would get an understanding nod to something that breaks through and takes us somewhere else, drawing us out of where we are.

    (Think of the opening riff of Life is a Highway and let it play in your head for a few seconds. It’s an instantaneous transport to somewhere else from where you are)

    I don’t know how that could be selling out, no matter what genre we create in.

    Thanks for all the great tips and wise advice SongTown!

    Happy New Year!

  9. “Selling out” is kind of a post-Woodstock concept. Originally, “ selling out” meant appeasing the “suits” running in music industry. If you weren’t making some big statement, you were “selling out”. Now, for better or worse, we are in the world of digital democracy in the music world. In one way, it really stinks because bad music get a lot of undeserved attention, but conversely, some really great artists and songs are breaking through corporate gatekeepers and getting noticed.

  10. Writing commercial music is not selling out. Commercial music is simply a classification, a type of genre, with its own characteristics, like any other genre. If you like those characteristics, incorporate them. Writing contemporary, radio-friendly country music is no more a sellout that writing Country and Western or traditional Scottish ballads – all of which were once, in their own way, considered “commercial”. So the whole commercial/artistic thing is a false dichotomy, as is the supposed choice between artistic integrity and “selling out”. The only “selling out” is if you write something you neither like nor believe in for the sole purpose of making money – which almost never works, anyway, because you will write crap that no-one will buy, anyway. So the whole question is flawed from the get-go.

  11. Thanks for this article!
    I love the part when you say:

    “I don’t view commercial music as selling out. I don’t view commercial music as a choice that we must make to write a great song vs. a hit song. I approach each day with an open heart and mind, learning from music all around me and trying to write the best song I can.”

  12. : Be real. Be believable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something I love: ‰”To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men‰, that is genius.

    I love this!! Thank you Clay.

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